Freedom in the World 2022 - Western Sahara

Not Free
/ 100
Political Rights -3 / 40
Civil Liberties 7 / 60
Last Year's Score & Status
4 / 100 Not Free
Global freedom statuses are calculated on a weighted scale. See the methodology.
* Indicates a territory as opposed to an independent country.


Freedom in the World reports assess the level of political rights and civil liberties in a given geographical area, regardless of whether they are affected by the state, nonstate actors, or foreign powers. Disputed territories are sometimes assessed separately if they meet certain criteria, including boundaries that are sufficiently stable to allow year-on-year comparisons. For more information, see the report methodology and FAQ.


Morocco has claimed authority over Western Sahara since 1975, but the United Nations considers it a “non-self-governing territory.” Morocco controls the most populous area along the Atlantic coastline, more than three-quarters of the territory; this area, which Rabat calls the “Southern Provinces,” is represented in that country’s parliament. The Polisario Front controls land in Western Sahara’s eastern and southern reaches. Rabat regularly offers autonomy, but the Polisario demands an independence referendum. A long-promised referendum on Western Sahara’s status has never been held. A 1991 UN-brokered cease-fire deteriorated in 2020. Civil liberties are severely restricted in Moroccan-controlled territory, especially relating to independence activism; civil liberties are similarly curtailed in Polisario-controlled territory.

Key Developments in 2021

  • In April, a Moroccan drone killed Polisario Front commander Addah al-Bendir as he reportedly led an attack along the sand berm separating Moroccan- and Polisario-controlled territory.
  • Also in April, Polisario Front leader Ibrahim Ghali sought COVID-19 treatment in Spain. Moroccan authorities reportedly retaliated by allowing thousands of migrants to enter the Spanish enclave of Ceuta in May. Ghali left for Algeria in June.
  • In October, UN Secretary-General António Guterres appointed Staffan de Mistura as his envoy to Western Sahara; de Mistura succeeded former German president Horst Köhler, who left the post in 2019.

Political Rights

A Electoral Process

A1 0-4 pts
Was the current head of government or other chief national authority elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

Morocco controls more than three-quarters of Western Sahara, and Moroccan authorities allow no proindependence candidates to run for office.

The Polisario Front is based in Tindouf, Algeria. It leads a nationalist movement comprised of members of the Sahrawi ethnic group and controls the less-populated interior of the territory. The constitution of the government-in-exile states that the leader of the Polisario Front—currently Ibrahim Ghali—is the territory’s president, but it does not hold regular elections within the territory.

A2 0-4 pts
Were the current national legislative representatives elected through free and fair elections? 0 / 4

In the Moroccan-controlled portion of the territory, voters elect 13 representatives to the parliament in Rabat. Turnout in municipal and parliamentary elections in Western Sahara is difficult to ascertain, but reports are that it is chronically low.

The Sahrawi Arab Democratic Republic (SADR), the breakaway government, maintains a 51-member Sahrawi National Council, which is indirectly elected by the General Popular Congress of the Polisario Front. Most voting occurs in refugee camps in Algeria. The Polisario Front organizes the elections and does not allow any political parties to compete.

A3 0-4 pts
Are the electoral laws and framework fair, and are they implemented impartially by the relevant election management bodies? 0 / 4

The electoral framework is not fair, given the constraints on representation in Moroccan-controlled territory, the prohibition of any candidate who challenges Moroccan control of the territory to run for Parliament, and Moroccan control of the media.

B Political Pluralism and Participation

B1 0-4 pts
Do the people have the right to organize in different political parties or other competitive political groupings of their choice, and is the system free of undue obstacles to the rise and fall of these competing parties or groupings? 0 / 4

The Polisario Front, which controls the government-in-exile and the eastern and southern portions of the territory, does not allow other political parties to compete. In recent years, it has cracked down on political dissent, imprisoning a number of opponents.

In Moroccan-controlled areas, the Polisario Front is banned, and proindependence parties are not allowed to form.

B2 0-4 pts
Is there a realistic opportunity for the opposition to increase its support or gain power through elections? 0 / 4

Since political parties that advocate for Sahrawi independence or autonomy cannot function in Moroccan-controlled areas, the most salient opposition elements cannot gain power through elections. No credible opposition exists in territory controlled by the Polisario Front due to the ban on other political parties.

B3 0-4 pts
Are the people’s political choices free from domination by forces that are external to the political sphere, or by political forces that employ extrapolitical means? 0 / 4

People’s political choices in Moroccan-controlled areas are dominated by Rabat. The government-in-exile in Tindouf is ostensibly autonomous but works closely with Algerian authorities. As a “non-self-governing territory,” the people in the region are unable to elect an independent government.

B4. Do various segments of the population (including ethnic, racial, religious, gender, LGBT+, and other relevant groups) have full political rights and electoral opportunities? 0 / 4

Due to the territory’s status and lack of sovereignty, no segment of the population has full political rights or electoral opportunities. However, women play a significant role in political activism. Many women are leaders in the independence movement and organize the refugee camps in Algeria.

C Functioning of Government

C1 0-4 pts
Do the freely elected head of government and national legislative representatives determine the policies of the government? 0 / 4

Western Sahara has no freely elected leaders. Representatives from Moroccan-controlled territory serve in the lower house of the Moroccan parliament, which is dominated by the monarchy. The monarch and his circle of advisers and associates—collectively known as the Makhzen (“central storehouse”)—effectively determine government policy regarding the territory. The Polisario Front governs portions of the territory in its control.

The Polisario has long accused Rabat of exploiting Western Sahara’s natural resources. Morocco–European Union (EU) trade agreements have included Polisario-claimed territory even as legal disputes were being considered. The European Parliament approved agricultural and fisheries agreements with Morocco in 2019, the latter of which was approved by the European Council that year. While a European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruling required the EU to seek local consent on agreements covering the disputed territory, the Polisario Front did not participate in consultations on the agreements and sought redress at the ECJ. In September 2021, the General Court of the EU annulled the agreements for lack of local consent but left them in effect pending possible appeal.

C2 0-4 pts
Are safeguards against official corruption strong and effective? 0 / 4

Corruption among Moroccan state officials is widespread and investigations are rare. Corruption occurs primarily to facilitate the exploitation of natural resources—phosphates, hydrocarbons, and fisheries—by Moroccan and international interests. In Tindouf, official corruption among members of the Polisario is similarly widespread.

C3 0-4 pts
Does the government operate with openness and transparency? 0 / 4

Morocco’s restrictive access to information laws apply to Western Sahara. Information about Western Sahara is nearly nonexistent, which severely limits transparency. The Moroccan government publishes budget and financial information online, and public officials—including parliament members, judges, and civil servants—are required to declare their assets. However, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) assert that many officials do not provide this information, and the law provides no penalties for noncompliance.

Add Q
Is the government or occupying power deliberately changing the ethnic composition of a country or territory so as to destroy a culture or tip the political balance in favor of another group? -3

Before and since the establishment of the UN Mission for the Referendum in Western Sahara (MINURSO) in 1991, Rabat endeavored to change the population’s balance in its favor. By some accounts, Moroccans now outnumber Sahrawis in Western Sahara. Despite this apparent trend, Morocco continues to work to prevent a referendum over the territory’s final status. Morocco constructed a sand berm to divide territory under its control from Sahrawi-controlled territory in the east.

Civil Liberties

D Freedom of Expression and Belief

D1 0-4 pts
Are there free and independent media? 0 / 4

Some pro-Sahrawi media outlets do operate, such as the all-volunteer Equipe Media group, but they face regular harassment by Moroccan authorities, who ensure that reporting does not dispute Morocco’s sovereignty over Western Sahara. The Moroccan 2016 Press Code prohibits challenges to “territorial integrity,” which potentially criminalizes independent journalism that focuses on Western Sahara. Print outlets found to violate this provision risk suspension, while news sites face potential blocking. Journalists accused of challenging Morocco’s territorial integrity could face prison sentences of between six months and two years.

International media are carefully vetted and scrutinized during their visits to Moroccan-controlled territory. Reporters visiting Tindouf are said to enjoy greater freedom of movement and inquiry, but such claims are difficult to substantiate. In Polisario-controlled territory, press freedoms are also limited, with television and radio coverage reflecting the ideology and viewpoints of the Polisario. Some exiled groups provide coverage from outside Western Sahara. Internet access is limited throughout the territory.

D2 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to practice and express their religious faith or nonbelief in public and private? 2 / 4

Moroccan authorities generally do not interfere with religious practices, although as in Morocco proper, mosques are closely monitored by authorities. Moroccan law prohibits any efforts to convert a Muslim to another faith. It is illegal to publicly criticize Islam.

D3 0-4 pts
Is there academic freedom, and is the educational system free from extensive political indoctrination? 0 / 4

Educators practice self-censorship around the status of Western Sahara, as Moroccan law criminalizes debate that calls this into question. Other sensitive topics include the monarchy and Islam. The University of Tifariti was established in 2013 as the first university in Polisario-controlled territory.

D4 0-4 pts
Are individuals free to express their personal views on political or other sensitive topics without fear of surveillance or retribution? 1 / 4

As in Morocco proper, there is concern about state surveillance of online activity and personal communications, and people do not feel free to speak privately about the status of Western Sahara and other sensitive topics. Freedom of expression is profoundly curtailed in Polisario-controlled areas as well.

E Associational and Organizational Rights

E1 0-4 pts
Is there freedom of assembly? 0 / 4

Demonstrations and protests are broken up regularly, particularly on sensitive issues such as self-determination and Sahrawi prisoners held by Moroccan authorities. Protesters are frequently arrested and beaten.

E2 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for nongovernmental organizations, particularly those that are engaged in human rights– and governance-related work? 0 / 4

NGOs that advocate for independence or question Islam as the state religion are denied official registration by the Moroccan government. Organizations that meet the government’s criteria are frequently denied registration as well. Foreign NGO representatives observing the human rights situation of Moroccan-controlled areas have been expelled.

In March 2021, Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Moroccan security forces maintained an active presence near the home of proindependence activist Sultana Khaya, who resides in the territory.

E3 0-4 pts
Is there freedom for trade unions and similar professional or labor organizations? 0 / 4

Moroccan unions are present but are largely inactive in Western Sahara. Government restrictions limit the right to strike. Most union members work for the Moroccan government.

The Polisario Front has a trade union called the Sahrawi Trade Union (UGTSARIO), which is also inactive; there is little economic activity in the refugee camps in Tindouf, and there is no functioning labor market in Polisario-controlled territory.

F Rule of Law

F1 0-4 pts
Is there an independent judiciary? 0 / 4

Courts in Western Sahara are controlled by Morocco and their rulings reflect Rabat’s interests. Executive interference and corruption significantly impede judicial independence.

F2 0-4 pts
Does due process prevail in civil and criminal matters? 0 / 4

Due process rights are not respected. A group of Sahrawis imprisoned in 2017 over the 2010 deaths of Moroccan security personnel were allegedly tortured before confessing.

Proindependence advocates and other civil society leaders are often arbitrarily arrested, particularly in the aftermath of demonstrations. International human rights groups view many Sahrawis in Moroccan prisons as political prisoners.

F3 0-4 pts
Is there protection from the illegitimate use of physical force and freedom from war and insurgencies? 0 / 4

The Moroccan military and the Polisario Front have engaged in regular fighting since the late-2020 collapse of a cease-fire; the Polisario Front uses guerrilla tactics against Moroccan forces, regularly targeting personnel deployed along the sand berm. In April 2021, a Moroccan drone killed Polisario commander Addah al-Bendir as he reportedly led an attack along the berm. In November, the Algerian government claimed that Moroccan forces killed three Algerians traveling on a road that passes through the territory.

In October 2021, UN Secretary-General Guterres appointed Staffan de Mistura as his envoy to Western Sahara; de Mistura succeeded former German president Horst Köhler, who left the post in 2019. Also in October 2021, the UN Security Council renewed MINURSO’s mandate for one year.

F4 0-4 pts
Do laws, policies, and practices guarantee equal treatment of various segments of the population? 0 / 4

Sahrawis experience discrimination in access to education and employment. According to Sahrawi activists, Moroccan settlers are favored by employers in the phosphate mining industry, which is a predominant source of employment.

Women play leadership roles at the Sahrawi camps in Algeria, and some Sahrawi have described life in these camps as matriarchal. However, cultural norms also dictate that women stay at home and manage the household.

Moroccan law prohibits same-sex sexual acts.

G Personal Autonomy and Individual Rights

G1 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy freedom of movement, including the ability to change their place of residence, employment, or education? 1 / 4

Morocco and the Polisario Front both restrict free movement in Western Sahara. The sand berm, constructed by Morocco in the 1980s, is 1,700 miles long. The wall, which is surrounded on both sides by land mines, constitutes what may be the longest continuous minefield in the world.

G2 0-4 pts
Are individuals able to exercise the right to own property and establish private businesses without undue interference from state or nonstate actors? 1 / 4

The territory’s occupied status leaves property rights insecure. No credible free market exists within the territory. The SADR government routinely signs contracts with firms for the exploration of oil and gas, although these cannot be implemented given the territory’s status.

G3 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy personal social freedoms, including choice of marriage partner and size of family, protection from domestic violence, and control over appearance? 2 / 4

In Polisario-controlled territory and in Tindouf, women have a relatively higher social status than in Morocco. However, social freedoms are curtailed. Moroccan law criminalizes both adultery and premarital sex. Spousal rape is not considered a crime.

G4 0-4 pts
Do individuals enjoy equality of opportunity and freedom from economic exploitation? 0 / 4

Economic opportunity is inhibited by the territory’s undetermined status. The economic activity generated by companies that exploit the country’s natural resources generally does not benefit the Sahrawi population. Sex trafficking, often affecting young girls, takes place in coastal fishing villages.